Talk 1: Great American Photographers

August 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

One off class taught by Armelle Skatulski at City Lit

If you live in London, you might have noticed the rain a couple of nights ago. There was lots of it. Picture me then, walking to Covent Garden under a big, black umbrella, the backs of my trouser becoming wetter and heavier. I think the weight of my damp clothing slowed me down as I arrived late. Armelle had already given out the handouts, small black and white reproductions of the photographs to be discussed, starting with Lewis Hines and the famous “Workers Lunch”. In the next two and a half hours, she took us through some twelve photographers, all working in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Here are some things I learned. The more informed of you will know all this already so feel free to skip ahead or completely.

1. Lewis Hines was a social reformer who, along with his photographs of men working precariously on the Empire State Building, took dozens of pictures of child workers standing next to the machinery they operated or the crops they picked. Like these girls.

images-1 images-2

2. Something about pictorialism, which I gather is about photographers creating images rather than just recording them, or as Armelle said, “producing an image in the language of painting.”

3. Alvin Coburn invented the Vortograph, which is a bit like Cubism, with the image chopped up.

4. Dorothea Lange’s famous photograph, “The destitute peapickers in California,” better known as “Migrant Mother” was taken to support the New Deal agenda of the Resettlement Administration’s (later known as the Farm Security Administration’s) documentary project. The project aimed to improve conditions for poor farmers and sharecroppers brought to poverty by the Depression.

Dorothea herself said of taking these pictures: “There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

According to photographer and writer, Michael Stone, “That help came quickly. Lange sent the photos to her employer, the Resettlement Administration in Washington, prompting a quick response by federal bureaucrats who rushed food supplies to peapicker camp. She also gave them to the San Francisco News, which featured two wide-angle shots in a March 10, 1936, article on the hardship endured by harvest workers. On the following day, it placed the iconic Migrant Mother picture above an editorial on the New Deal agenda. The ensuring uproar was a catalyst that inspired John Steinbeck to write his most influential novel, the Grapes of Wrath.”

That was all good but not much use for Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of the picture, and her family, who had already left the camp by the time the extra food arrived. In later years, Thompson noted that Lange had not even asked her name and said that she wished the picture had never been taken. She’d earned nothing from it. As it was a government funded project, neither did Lange, although, of course, she did go on to have a renowned and acknowledged career. So not quite equal.

On the upside, apparently there are no restrictions on the use of these pictures so it might be the only imagine I can safely put on this blog.


I think some other people were annoyed with me. I tried to say that I couldn’t imagine the current Government funding photographers to document the damaging results of their policies, as the FSA funded Dorothea Lange and the others. “Yes, that happens,” said one woman. “The Arts Council gives out grants like that all the time.” This didn’t seem very likely to me but I lacked any facts with which to counter her.

The teacher was good, very knowledgeable, and acted a little like a French Annie Hall. She thought almost everything was “very interesting.”  I saw that the man next to me wrote on his evaluation form, “The worse class I have ever been to,” which shocked me. He was looking at his phone the whole time anyway. Maybe if he listened more he could have avoided being so darn rude.

And, to finish, here’s a lady I like, Margaret Bourke-White, who seems to have photographed everything, from the liberation of Buchenwald for LIFE to capturing the young Marlon Brando. Quite a career.


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